Puttin’ on the Ritz, Global Province Letter, 11 May 2011   

If you're blue and you don't know where to go to
Why don't you go where fashion sits
Puttin' on the ritz

Diff'rent types who wear a day coat, pants with stripes
And cutaway coat, perfect fits
Puttin' on the ritz

Dressed up like a million dollar trouper
Trying hard to look like Gary Cooper
Super duper          

----from Irving Berlin’s Puttin’on the Ritz

Mother’s Day.  Perhaps we’re reminded lately of the virtues of indulgence because we did it up for Mother’s Day.  A long breakfast got its start with champagne and chocolate macarons courtesy of Alice Medrich, a sometime dessert chef, now repotted as a cookbook author and baker of flights of fancy. Her recipe was perfecto. Years ago we’d imported her chocolate truffles from the West Coast (her taste and ampleness had surpassed even the French), but then she vanished into thin air. Now she’s back to make us feel good again.

Dinner around 7:30 similarly got a kick-start because of an unusual appetizer. Sopecitos. A small corn paddy, if you like, topped with a refined bean sauce and a variety of vegetable fixings, in our case cactus.  This is lightly dusted with queso fresco cheese, the better versions of which are hard to find.

All this, a mélange of unusual tastes to combat this worry-wart age where people are giving up such pleasures in the hopes of living longer, puts a smile on our gatherings that cannot be erased.  Such refined gluttony assures us that we will die young, but we will die happy, most assuredly with our boots on.  After all, living well is the best revenge.

An Excursion on the L Train.  But the high life is about much more than food. It’s an artistic transformation of the mundane where the common is made uncommon. Elegance descended recently on the L Train (a subway line we usually would rather not know about), as a bunch of foodies convened some unlikely invitees one Sunday afternoon and then served the finest formality:

Within moments, a car of the waiting train was transformed into a traveling bistro, complete with tables, linens, fine silverware and a bow-tied maître d’hôtel. “Is this your first time dining on the second car of the L train?” he asked, as guests filed in.

The event was the work of several supper clubs, and the menu they devised was luxurious: caviar, foie gras and filet mignon, and for dessert, a pyramid of chocolate panna cotta, dusted with gold leaf. All of it was accessible with a MetroCard swipe (Michele handed out single-ride passes) and orchestrated with clockwork precision. The six-course extravaganza took only a half-hour.

As the Times made clear in “Aboard the L Train, Luncheon Is Served,” this was a stunt, a caper, but oh what fun! A feast embellished with a little Ritzy style can totally displace from the mind the gnome-like Mayor Bloomberg who is mostly a scold and, instead, make New Yorkers feel as if the Empire City’s dormant party has re-ignited itself. Suddenly café society is alive and well.  The Duke and Ella Fitzgerald will soon enough come back to life, crooning about the L, instead of the A Train.

When New Yorkers do something like this off the beaten track with copious flair, they summon up a new Belle Époque.  Make no mistake about it.  Indulgence without huge dollops of panache counts for nothing. For that reason, the song “Puttin’ on the Ritz”  talks up style, talks up language, talks up the ceremonial trappings of creative celebration. It’s the only way to dissolve banality and sterility. 

“Just a Quiet Dinner for Two in Paris: 31 Dishes, Nine Wines, a $4,000 Check.”  In November of 1975, Craig Claiborne won a blowout meal for two anywhere in the world.  He and his buddy Pierre Franey flew off to Paris to do it up in style. We have much celebrated Claiborne on the Global Province:  in our eyes, he staged the food revolution, getting New Yorkers and Americans to expect more from their meals out, while demanding more from themselves when forging platters for their own tables at home.

Their night on the fly was an affair to remember.  Claiborne himself wrote about it in a memorable front-page splash for the Times, November 14, 1975:

We visited Chez Denis….to reconnoiter…We asked Mr. Denis…how much he would charge for the most lavish dinner for two that he and his chef could prepare.  He spoke in terms of $2,000 to $3,000.

However, Mr. Denis upped the ante when he realized his guests were serious about ordering “the finest dinner in Europe.”  For starters, he proposed nine wines and more:

He suggested a dinner of 31 dishes that would start with an hors d’oeuvre and go on to three “services,” the first consisting of soups, savory, an assortment of substantial main dishes, and ices or sherbets to clear the palate….the second service: hot roasts or baked dishes, vegetables, cold, light, meaty dishes in aspic and desserts…the third service: decorated confections, petits fours and fruits.

Claiborne much enjoyed the feast, considering it one of the most memorable evenings of his life.  But, nicely, he pointed out several flaws in the proceeding for his readers, assuring us that this grandest of occasions still had feet of clay.

True New Yorkers loved this sumptuous tale of over- the- top gourmandizing, although several breast beaters quivered with indignation, finding it too much to stomach in a world where so many lack for decent food and water. The Pope of that day was scandalized and let out a Vatican roar.

On this matter, however, we side with Paul Pickrel, a wonderfully talented editor of The Yale Review, back when Eli still had something to do with literature.  As he put it to us in the 1950s, the rich have an obligation to the rest of us to show off all the trappings of the grand life.  Of course, the only caveat is that they develop sufficient taste and wit to parade before us something worth showing and doing.  We do not need a depressing exhibition of flagrant boorishness.

The Passing of the Railroad Age.  Alas, it is hard to ferret out an environment where taste and style flourish.  Airplanes, inherently a bankrupt form of transportation which teeters on because of endless government subsidy, try to offer first and executive class seating, but both classes turn out to be a bad parody of coach or steerage. Ten years ago we had a truly blissful first class trip up from Hong Kong to Beijing on Dragon Air, but that trip only reminded us of how depressing life in the skies is for even well heeled travelers on almost all airlines.  Mostly, first class in the skies is nothing more than a cheap trick, a swindle.

In fact, long distance trains of old with Pullman porters had a flair and comfort that’s missing from all our point-to-point travel at the moment.  Best of all in yesteryear were the dining cars.  Often one did not care what one ate:  several of my elders chewed on martinis for as much of the trip as they could.  But the linen, the jacketed waiters, the sights out the window, these all made the time fly in top drawer surroundings. One cannot help but be reminded of the magic road to Albany or dalliance aboard the luxury liner to Chicago, as one reads about the caper on the L Train a few weeks back. 

We hear now of the end of dining car services on the UK’s East Coast Service up to Edinburgh with the prospect that the First Class eating experience will become a meal to be avoided at all costs.  No longer can the traveler savor a compleat journey such as the journalist who commented:

On a white tablecloth before me is a venison and pistachio terrine, two slabs of medium- rare ribeye and a plate of British cheeses. A gentle tinkle of silver cutlery, and unsurpassed views of the British countryside – May blossom, a paddock of horses, children on BMXs – unfurl under a setting sun.

The marketing mavens at British Rail talk about a new premium service where everybody gets a cookie-cutter meal, we suppose on plastic trays, at their seat. This first class is not first class, but just a cascade of meaningless words covering up the pedestrian offering,  dreamed up by people who have no sense of fineness.  It’s another case of Emperor’s New Clothes which amounts to wearing no clothes at all.  This is salesmanship run amuck where we pretend black is white, nothing is something.

Picking up the Pieces.  Throughout the Western World, companies and cities and people are coming unglued, and all eyes are cast downward in despair to the ground. The whole world needs a pick-me-up, a celebration that lifts people out of their seats. That demands exuberance and luxury and even expenditures that seem to cut across the grain of the present time. But, as it happens, such party spirit helps us get going again, even if some of us can only join the blowout as voyeurs in our dreams.

Years ago one of our number was leading a college undergraduate class in American  history and asked how the students would stage a revolution. There was the usual rot about guns and prisons and coup d’etats.  But one very intuitive fun young lady said, “Well, I would stage a costume party.”  She knew somehow that a people’s revolution demands élan and joie de vivre.

New York’s SoHo, now prime shopping and restaurant territory, was an empty shell, full of deserted warehouses, just a few decades ago.  It wasn’t city planning or real estate investment that first breathed life back into it. Artists of all sorts moved into the area, took over lofts, and put illegal residences and studios there.  Dreams, and irreverence, and zany design put the area on the map. The real estate types and the high end chain stores followed soon enogh.

To pull off the extraordinary, it seems, one must never do the ordinary.   Be it eats on the L Train, a king’s feast at Chez Denis, or venison on the way to Edinburgh. 

P.S.  A British friend has to fly back and forth across the Atlantic drink quite often. When American Airlines introduced its new business class configuration, he took his seat and awaited the long dreaded ride.  He was early and a stewardness came and plopped down beside him. She said, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”.  “Not at all.”  She queried, “How do you like the new Business Class seats and cabin?”  “Hate it.  Awful.” he said.  “Funny,” she whispered, “All eight of us are new to it, so we tried out the seats.  Everybody, everybody, agreed that they were awful.”  In our eyes, this is just one of American’s missteps on its long ride downhill.

P.P.S.  The romance of the rails will never be forgotten, because it is memorialized in a list of songs that is not to be believed. Here’s a pretty good list.

P.P.P.S.  We have stumbled across this assortment of food articles in the Timeswhich may lead you into some interesting byways.  As with most newspapers, the Times search engine is very creaky so you have to use your imagination to find some of its gems

P.P.P.P.S.  Mayor Jimmy Walker of New York City was one fun guy.  He had more than a bit of style.  One canny Irish lass of our acquaintance was given to saying, “Well, you knew Jimmy Walker was stealing you blind.  But at least he gave you a good time.”  She could not say that about so many of the mayors who followed.







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